Relativism and the Understanding of Islam

A speaker at one of the group meetings of the Middle Eastern Studies Association was criticizing those whom he termed Muslim fundamentalists in Egypt. His main objection to them was their absolutism: they take their interpretation of the Qur’an to be the only acceptable interpretation, while everyone, in his opinion, is entitled to his own interpretation. I asked whether that kind of relativistic interpretation applied to all texts, or only to the Qur’an, and went on to say something to the effect that if there were no criteria for correct semantic interpretation of statements, then language would lose its function as a means of communication amongst people. “Would the gentleman apply the same principle of relativism to the interpretation of the American Constitution and American laws?” And the answer was: “Why not?” I went on to say, “Why then have a Supreme Court; why even study law? If the judge tells me that I am convicted according to such and such a law, I can retort by saying ‘But that is your interpretation of the law, your honor; my interpretation is different from yours. What right have you to impose your interpretation of me and convict me?’”

I thought that that was an isolated incident, but I found to my surprise that the same kind of relativistic argument was used by many other Arabist and Islamist scholars, both Muslim and non-Muslim, on many other occasions. Being to some extent acquainted with Western philosophy, I have not been unaware of the currency of relativism among many Western intellectuals, and about its influence on intellectuals elsewhere, even in my own country, Sudan. I have also learned from Alan Bloom’s book, The Closing of the American Mind, about its great popularity amongst American university students.

There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative. If this belief is put into question, one can count on the students’ reaction: they will be uncomprehending. That anyone should regard the proposition as not self-evident astonished them, as though he were calling into question 2 + 2 = 4 (p. 25).

Many Muslim students who go to American universities have told me the same; but in spite of this, I really never thought that relativism in that naïve and obviously false form, which has been called by some “vulgar relativism”, would be so widespread among social scientists – the Islamists among them anyway.

To what extent is it true to say that truth is relative? What are the consequences of this claim when applied to the study of religion, and to Islam in particular? And to what extent can one consistently adhere to such a principle? These are some of the issues that I propose to touch on in this short paper.

Of the three kinds of relativism, cognitive, ethical, and aesthetic, we are interested here in the first. The claim is that the truth value of a statement is relative to its context. There are certain kinds of contexts about whose relevance to the truth value of the majority of statements we are all agreed. No one doubts the truth value of a statement like “the sun is rising” is relative to the place of the speaker, or that a statement like “the door is open” is relative to the time of the speaker. I cannot think of a statement that is not relative to time and place except some of the statements about God. “God exists” is absolutely true because He has been eternally, and will be everlastingly existing. The problematic form of relativism is the one which makes truth subjective, which implies that there is no truth out there to which we can point even if we happen to be agreed on the spatio-temporal context of our statement. The context, whatever it is, to which truth is claimed to be relative, is said to act like spectacles which make us see things – if there is anything out there to be seen – in a certain color, which can be different from the color seen by the person next to us if his context happens to be different. This context is sometimes taken to be our culture. But culture in such a usage is a very vague term. What is it specifically in our culture which makes us see things differently from other people who don’t share that culture?

It is said that the most fundamental thing about which cultures differ are religious beliefs. Does my belief, as a Muslim, that there is no god worthy of worship except God the Creator make me see the world differently from an atheist or a polytheist? Indeed it does, but not in any relativistic sense. The atheist and I see the same physical trees, rivers, and mountains. But while he sees them merely as objects which occupy space and time, I see them as signs which point to their Creator. The atheist can understand why I see them in that way, and can see the relevance of my belief to such viewing. This is very much like the difference between a scientist and a lay person when they see, a falling leaf, say. The scientist sees in it much more than the lay person next to him, but this is only because he has more knowledge. The religious belief can, however, have such an effect even if it were false, in which case what the believer sees would not be a reflection of reality, but a figment of his imagination caused by that false belief. But beliefs are not things like our brains which we cannot do anything about. If our religious beliefs cannot condemn us to see the facts differently, no other elements of our culture can. But all of this is a far cry from the extreme relativistic claim which makes us live in different worlds among which there can be no communication, and no commensurable standards.

The statement “truth is relative” suffers from the paradox of self-reference: if it is true that truth is relative, then the statement “truth is relative” is itself relative. But if “truth is relative” is not relative then it is false, because there is at least one truth that is not relative, namely, “truth is relative”.

Also, if it were true that every human society is locked up in a cultural compartment which makes it impossible for it to see truth except through its own windows, then it would be impossible for anyone to know that the truth is relative. To know this one must be able to have a trans-cultural vantage point which enables one to see how different cultures or contexts determine the way that one sees reality, whether it be the reality of spatio-temporal things or the reality of meanings. The very fact that we are able to communicate with people who differ with us culturally, and even translate what they say into our own language, is itself a proof that truth is not relative in any absolute sense.

The best evidence against relativism is “…the very activity of anthropologists, while the best evidence for relativism [is] in the writings of anthropologists… In retracing their steps [in their works], anthropologists transform into unfathomable gaps the shallow and irregular cultural boundaries they had not found so difficult to cross [in the field], thereby protecting their own sense of identity, and providing their philosophical and lay audience with just what they want to hear.” [Sperber, “Rationality”: 180, as quoted by Geertz in Relativism:29]

Belief in relativism is sometimes seen as a means of justifying and encouraging tolerance towards other cultures. The motive behind the belief can be commendable, but the fact remains that if relativism is taken to its logical conclusions, it will breed nothing but intolerance. If what is true or right or beautiful is determined for me by my cultural environment, then I cannot help but see that which is different from mine as false or wrong or ugly. When I come to appreciate or respect or even adopt some of what I find in other cultures, it will be because some of my most basic standards of the true or right or the beautiful, are human, and as such shared by people who belong to other cultures.

If the motive behind the advocacy of relativism is a plea for tolerance by some good-natured souls, it is sometimes used by other, not-so-good-natured souls only as a weapon against beliefs, which they find distasteful, and in defense of beliefs they approve of, when they find themselves devoid of the intellectual weapons by which to attack the former or defend the latter.

Let me now say something about the interpretation of Islamic texts which prompted all this theoretical discussion of relativism. The proper attitude towards a text, any text, in which one is seriously interested, is to do one’s best to understand its meaning as conveyed by its language, and, where possible, as intended by the author of the text. This is what we habitually do with the books we read, be they fiction or non-fiction; it is what we do with articles and scientific papers; it is what we do with the bills we receive; it is what we do even with old texts of extinct languages. I find it strange that, in the West, this normal way of consuming texts is dubbed literalism or fundamentalism in the pejorative sense when it comes to the interpretation of Scripture. The liberal construal which is preferred to fundamentalism is in fact a distortion of the meaning and an indulgence in self-deception. The liberal starts – he has to – by first understanding the text in the normal, “literal” or “fundamentalist” way. Only after he or she has understood the real meaning in what is called the literal sense, and found it not to his/her liking, for whatever reason, does he/she resort to liberal interpretation. The normal and honest thing we do, and these liberals must do most of the time, is to declare one’s disapproval of what one has found, but not to change it to suit one’s beliefs or desires. In defending a literal construal of the language of science, Fraassen rightly says:

Not every philosophical position concerning science which insists on a literal construal of the language of science is a realist position. For this insistence relates not at all to our epistemic attitudes towards theories, nor to the aim we pursue in constructing theories, but only to the correct understanding of what a theory says. (The fundamentalist theist, the agnostic, and the atheist agree with each other (although not with liberal theologians) in their understanding of the statement that God, or gods, or angels exist.) After deciding that the language of science must be literally understood, we can still say there is no need to believe good theories to be true, nor to believe ipso facto that the entities they postulate are real. [Image: 11]

If you really believe that the Bible is the word of God, then you should try to do your best to find out what God is saying. The last book you would be inclined to tamper with is a book which you believe contains God’s word. If, on the other hand, you come to the conclusion that it is not, or not every word in it is, the word of God, then you should leave those expressions which you do not approve of as they are and declare your unbelief in them. You cannot with any honesty attribute to God words which you know to be your own.

As to the Qur’an, “literal” interpretation of its verses is a must. It is a fundamental requirement of being a Muslim to believe that the Qur’an is the word of God in the literal sense; if you believe that any verse of it is not the word of God, or if you doubt its being the word of God, or if you do not approve of it, then you are no longer a Muslim. If this be fundamentalism, then everyone who professes to be a Muslim is bound by the religion itself to be a fundamentalist; there is no room for liberals. The Qur’an, like genuine Divine books before it, is a message from God to His servants; its words, like the words of any speaker, are the vehicles which carry that message. The intended meaning of the message is therefore as objective as any object of the external world; the task of the believer is to endeavor to find that meaning. God does not convey to His Messengers a string of hollow words and leave it for human creatures to fill it with the meanings they deem to be fit according to their times and places and personal whims. He might as well not send a Message or a Messenger at all, but leave it to humans to do what they want the way they want. No, the words of the Qur’an, and also those of Prophet Muhammad, do hold objective meaning. It is a meaning the Qur’an urges us to try to understand and hold fast to, and never be swayed from:

Hold fast to what has been revealed to you; you are on the right path. [43:43]

It warns believers in it against being like some of those before them who knowingly distort the meanings of divine words even after they understood them [2:75; 4:46].

If the Qur’an carries a message with a meaning that can be understood by humans, then there must be an objective way of reaching that meaning; there must be rational criteria which we apply to find that meaning. Fortunately, those rational criteria are laid down in the book itself. Any one who reads Arabic can easily see that the Qur’an is an Arabic book; but the Quran itself confirms and emphasizes fact.

We have sent it down as an Arabic Qur’an so that you may understand (it). [12:2]

The Arabic referred to is of course the Arabic spoken by the people whom the Qur’an first addressed. That is why early scholars say that any interpretation of the Quran according to a meaning that one of its terms acquired after that period is wrong. The second criterion is that of consistency: since the Qur’an is the word of God, there can be no contradictions in it:

Had it been from other than God, they would have found many discrepancies in it. [4:82]

One should not, therefore, interpret a verse in a way which makes it contradict other verses. Isn’t this what we actually do, even with works of human thinkers whom we respect; we assume that they are consistent until the contrary is proven? Even non-Muslim students of Islam should, therefore, do their best to abide by this criterion in their understanding of the Qur’an and the Sunnah.

The Qur’an tells us that Prophet Muhammad is entrusted with the task of explaining it by his words as well as his deeds. The third criterion of interpretation is, therefore, to give the verses the meanings which his words give them or his acts imply.

The fourth and last criterion is to give priority to the interpretations of the Companions of the Prophet. This is not because it is believed that they were in any way infallible, but because of the special place they were privileged to have. The language of the Qur’an was their native tongue; they knew about the circumstances in which the Qur’anic verses were revealed or the Prophetic sayings were uttered; as a group they were considered to be the best of Muslim generations.

Two points need to be emphasized here. These are necessary conditions to be fulfilled for a correct understanding of the Qur’an. Like methodological rules, however, they do not ensure that all those who abide by them are always right, but they do enable them to enter into rational discussion with others who abide by them, and thus to correct or be corrected.

The rules enable one to understand what might be called the basic meanings of the texts; they are not an alternative to reflection, further understanding, deduction, ijtihad, and so on, but a prerequisite to all of this. It is only after one has grasped the basic meaning of a text that one can comment on it or compare it with other texts, or compare what it says with reality, or use it to issue Islamic rulings on new issues. Ijtihad in particular is not, and cannot apply to the basic meanings of Islamic texts since it is based on them. How can one who has no basic knowledge of Islamic texts start to make even the rudiments of ijtihad?

All of this is in sharp contradiction to that vulgar relativistic approach to the interpretation of texts. Vulgar relativism in particular, and unlike some sophisticated forms of relativism, makes havoc of texts if taken seriously. This is because, while the sophisticated relativism which is advocated by some anthropologists, historians of science or other social scientists, whether they be ethical or cognitive or aesthetic, is one which relates these matters to factors like natural environment, social context, language or form of life, all of which apply to human societies. Vulgar relativism (of the kind which is assumed by the people I referred to at the beginning of this paper), on the other hand, relates cognition or interpretation to individuals. Advocates of sophisticated relativism do not take the barriers between groups of human beings to be forever insurmountable. Once can put oneself in the natural environment of an Eskimo and understand why they have thirty words for snow (if indeed they have), or one can learn the language of a people, or study their culture, and thus be able to put oneself in their place and see things from within that culture as they do. But if I am not the individual you are, and I do not have the faintest clue as to why you see things the way you do, and cannot therefore put myself in your place or be you, then we cannot at all communicate, let alone argue about or appreciate each other’s standpoints, unless something miraculous happens to me that makes me identical with you or vice versa.

Vulgar relativism is not and cannot be taken seriously by any thinking person. It is often used by people who do not really believe in the message conveyed by the Islamic texts, and therefore resort to relativism only as a pretext to reject them or trim and truncate Islam to fit into the molds of their own beliefs and prejudices, whether they be religious, secular, or broadly cultural.

As a result of relativism and the absolute egalitarianism that is sometimes associated with it, all Muslims sects and groups are said to have equal rights to be Muslim even if they hold diametrically opposite and even contradictory beliefs on the fundamental matters of faith. When discrimination is made, it is not based on what the Islamic sources say, but on the extent one is nearer to and further from Western values and interests. It is one thing to be scientific in giving a true picture of the reality of Muslim peoples as well as one can see it, but quite another to judge them to have equal rights in their claim to be Muslims just because they say they are. Truth should never be compromised; but to state the truth is not necessarily to be intolerant, or to refuse to co-exist with those with whom we differ on fundamental issues. The communists used to describe their political system as being democratic, but they were not judged by other to be so, or to be as democratic as Western countries just because they gave themselves, in fact appropriated to themselves the label of true democracy.




The Holy Qur’an.

Bloom, Allan (1987). The Closing of the American Mind. Simon and Schusster. New York.

Van Fraassen, Bas C. (1980). The Scientific Image. Clarendon Press. Oxford.

Krausz, Michael (ed.) (1989). Relativism: Interpretation and Confrontation. U. of Notre Dame Press. Notre Dame.

M. Hollis and S Lukes (eds) (1982). Rationality and Relativism. MIT Press. Cambridge, Mass.

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